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Guiding Atten­tion on Stage

Painters care about it. Cin­e­matog­ra­phers as well. And teachers have long given up on it. I am talking about attention!

Most talks and pre­sen­ta­tions end with the sen­tence: “Thank you for your atten­tion.” But somehow we are pre­tending that atten­tion is a given. Atten­tion is prob­ably one of the most valu­able resources in our today’s busy world. The great news for us speakers: Yes, when people are attending our talk out of their own free will, there is a great chance that they gift us with their atten­tion, at least some of it.

The air is filled with atten­tion, but we have to work with it. In the same way, just the mere pres­ence of oil colours does not create a painting itself. They have to be con­trolled and guided by the painter. We, the speaker, are the painter. But how can we con­trol the audience’s attention?

Follow my eyes

When you have a con­ver­sa­tion with someone, focus on some­thing behind the other person. Chances are high that your con­ver­sa­tional partner is turning her head around or asking you: “Is there some­thing behind me?”.

Our pri­mor­dial instinct to follow another person’s line of sight is deeply embedded in our genes. Maybe our fellow human is seeing a poten­tial danger coming or a pos­i­tive coun­ter­part. It is impor­tant for our survival.

This behav­iour can come in quite handy for us on stage. Only by the move­ment of our own eyes, we can move many others. When we want to have the audi­ence look back at the pre­sen­ta­tion, why don’t we look there first? Not on the mon­itor where the presenter’s view is run­ning, but on the big screen for our audience.

“You can’t!”, many people shout. “Never turn your head towards the pre­sen­ta­tion!” Oh, buhu. Come on, grow up. There is a rule for every rule, why break it? Guiding atten­tion with inten­tion is def­i­nitely one of them. 🙂

Point, don’t tell

A fist with a stretched-out index finger is almost as effec­tive as our eyes. Just keep in mind that we are usu­ally not happy when someone points a finger at us. These ges­tures often create a feeling of blame. If you want to move the atten­tion to another person in the audi­ence, use an open hand with the back pointing towards the ground instead. It is way more friendly and inviting!

Less is more … attention?

Let’s talk about the slides them­selves. How do we point our audi­ence’s eyes to the visual ele­ment of interest? 

When we feel that we somehow have to visu­ally pri­or­i­tize our infor­ma­tion, chances are high that we don’t need most of this infor­ma­tion. A com­mons pre­sen­ta­tion’s pur­pose is to sup­port our talk. Often, pre­sen­ta­tions tend to do exactly the oppo­site and are hurting the overall expe­ri­ence. Our audi­ence should be able to instantly tell us what ele­ment is the focus of a par­tic­ular slide and why we are pre­senting it to them. That does not mean that our slides should just con­tain a full-screen photo and a couple of bold, white words on them. Addi­tional ele­ments can make a slide visu­ally more engaging.

A very effec­tive but typ­i­cally dis­re­garded tech­nique to guide atten­tion to a par­tic­ular ele­ment is ani­ma­tion. Everyone knows that we can blend in our bullet points one after another, but very few people actu­ally do. Why? Because we don’t want to click so often? It is more than com­fort­able for our audi­ence to be pre­sented with one bit of infor­ma­tion at a time instead of having to look for the cor­rect piece of infor­ma­tion themselves.

I like to move it!

Here comes our rep­tile brain again. Our atten­tion is hard­wired to pri­or­i­tize moving over static objects. A sur­vival thing, once again. Many people demo­nize ani­ma­tions inside pre­sen­ta­tions, but like every­thing, when used with a pur­pose they can be of tremen­dous help. Whether we ani­mate our vir­tual camera on screen with Prezi or slowly fade in our bullet points in Pow­er­Point, the atten­tion goes usu­ally back to the pre­sen­ta­tion. These slow fade-ins are such a clever way to make ele­ments appear on-screen since they are subtle and ele­gantly con­trol the atten­tion of our audience.

Like men­tioned in the article The Match Cut in Pre­sen­ta­tions, you can antic­i­pate your ani­ma­tions by using your eyes and hands to absolutely make sure no one in the audi­ence is losing orientation.

Bottom line

Atten­tion is a valu­able resource, and we as speakers have to work with it on stage. Instead of ran­domly let­ting the atten­tion flow around, we must catch it and guide it throughout our pre­sen­ta­tion. Our own eye move­ments, hand ges­tures and ani­ma­tions can help us with that.

Thank you for reading.

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